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Sorry, Not Sorry: Why Making Kids Apologize Backfires

The kids are busy at the table making ‘creations’, utilizing every craft material known to man, so Mom grabs that second cup of coffee. She goes to the fridge for creamer, hand poised on the door handle, her head is jerked 180 degrees by a howl from the table, just in time to see 4 year old Ty winding up for a (presumably second) roundhouse swing at 6 year old Anna’s back.

Ride-or-die friends and their daughters get together for a playdate. The girls are playing with their dolls in the living room when they hear it. “You’re not the boss of everything! Why did you even come over! You’re mean and I hate you!”

That perpetual motion machine EM calls her 7 year old decides to use a grocery cart as a scooter and plows into the cart in front of her in line at Target. The woman glares and offers some not-so-friendly parenting advice as EM’s son tries to hide behind her.

You don’t have to have ESP to predict what happens next. Nine times out of ten it’s,

“Say you’re sorry, right now!”

Before we deep dive into that statement, let’s pretend we are that parent. For most of us, that’s not much of a stretch. We've been there! What are we feeling and thinking at that moment? Dread? Embarrassment? Fear? Alarm? Shame? Anger? All emotions our brain calls danger and urges us to action! Make it stop! Fight or Flight. We jump up and run to the source of the disturbance or cower under the withering stare of a stranger. And we blurt out the one thing we have been conditioned by our own childhoods to say. Our own parents’ voices spew from our mouths, “Say you’re sorry”. If I say it, we think, that stranger will know I am a strong ‘no nonsense’ parent. If I say it, the awkwardness between me and my friend will resolve because I rushed to defend her child. If I say it, my kid will feel the same shame and fear and alarm and anger I felt; that I am feeling.

Oh. Wait. Is that what we want?

We want the hurtful or destructive behavior to cease.

We want our child to recognize that what happened is not acceptable.

We want our child to recognize the consequences of their behavior.

We want our child to feel compassion and remorse.

We want our child to have enough self confidence and the social skills to be able to apologize and act in ways that will console and reconcile with the other person. What I call the ‘Art of the Repair.

Our rushing into the room, grabbing our child’s arm and our alarm voice may make the behavior stop. Our demand to say, “ I’m sorry” will probably result in a chin-to-chest muffled, ‘sooorrrryy’.

Whew! Crisis averted. We did our duty, just as our 7 year old self did their duty.

But we probably aren’t feeling like the job is really done and we are likely going to spend the next few minutes apologizing profusely ourselves while our child sulks. They are probably not feeling sorry at all in the way we had hoped. They may be feeling confused, angry, afraid, resentful, ashamed or embarrassed. They may be angry at the other child who raised the alarm, who alerted the grownups to the fracas. But they are probably not feeling very compassionate toward you or the other person. The magic words have been spoken. Now can we just get on with it?!

Developmental psychologists suggest that forcing a child’s apology often has negative effects on their social and moral development. Demanding that they repeat our words that do not match what they are experiencing can lead a child to mistrust and deny their own feelings when an adult contradicts them. This has serious implications for their safety with adults who might attempt to manipulate, control or groom them.

Mouthing words we don’t mean to get out of an uncomfortable situation is dishonest, disrespectful and doesn’t change behavior in the long run. It interferes with the normal process of developing empathy for others’ feelings.

When a parent does not know the details of the situation prior to the behavior, the child may feel the parent does not trust or care about them and it can profoundly affect their self esteem over time. When a child responds to our needs out of fear of disappointing us, by denying their own reality or feelings, they can feel betrayed. They may learn to lie just to placate adults or feel such deep shame that it undermines their relationship with the parent.

So, what CAN we say or do when our child has made a serious mistake and caused emotional or physical pain to another or who has not appropriately observed a social boundary?

The first step is acknowledging what needs we are seeking to fulfill when we rush to elicit an apology from our child. We can remember that a forced or insincere apology is not an apology at all. We can remind ourselves that children learn to feel remorse and compassion for those they have wronged, and have the courage to make amends when they experience authentic sincere apologies from the adults around them. When those behaviors are modeled for them over and over as they develop the cognitive skills necessary to anticipate consequences to their behavior, observe and feel with others, and problem solve to help make amends, they will be much more sincere in expressing authentic remorse.

How to Model the Art of the Repair

  • Take a deep breath and remind yourself that a sincere apology is better than a quick apology.

  • Ensure everyone’s safety by calmly interceding or restraining as necessary.

  • Approach the situation with curiosity.

  • Check-in with each child’s feelings (with adults it may be obvious but they may be willing to offer).

  • Make an observation about what happened. Be as objective as possible. Try not to ascribe feelings or motives. Only describe what you see or the sequence of events you witnessed.

  • Co-regulate to ensure everyone feels safe and calm.

  • Model understanding for all emotions and compassion for the injured party.

  • Offer time, space and support for problem solving.

  • Support reconciliation and making amends

What might that look like in practice?

Let’s use the girls’ play date as an example.

Mom: Wow. I am hearing some loud angry voices in here. Is everyone okay?

Daughter: She always wants her own way! It’s my doll house and I should get to say how it gets set up!

Mom: I can see you are upset. I know it doesn’t feel very good to argue with angry words and it doesn’t feel good when we think something is not fair. Do you want to take a minute to breathe while I check in with your friend? I see Misha looks upset and sad and it sounds like she wants to leave. Most friends have trouble getting along sometimes and Misha’s Mom and I are here to help if you need us.

Mom to Misha: Are you okay? You look sad and a little scared. I think I would be sad if my friend yelled at me and called me a name. I know friends sometimes disagree. Taking turns is hard and it’s not fun to play together when angry words come out. It probably didn’t feel good at all. (wait for response) I am so sorry your feelings were hurt. Would you like a hug?

Mom to Daughter: Would you like to check in with Misha to see how she’s feeling now or wait a few minutes? I’m going to take Misha to sit with her Mom for a few minutes and then I’ll be back in case you need anything.

It sounded like you were having some trouble deciding together about setting up the dollhouse. Sometimes when we are saying what we are upset about, other angry things come out that we did not mean. Do you have an idea about how to help Misha with her sadness about the angry words you said?

Is there anything you could do so that you could play together again later? When she is feeling better Maybe you and Misha can think of another way to play with the dolls or maybe it’s a good time to play a different game or have a snack.

Remember, your child almost certainly knows when he or she has done something that was not appropriate and that they should be the one to initiate some kind of reconciliation. We do not have to beat them over the head with their mistakes, whether accidental or intentional. We want to create an environment where they feel safe enough to admit their mistake, assured that they will be treated with compassion, just as they show it to others. What is important is that all parties feel seen and supported as they navigate their way back to at least a peaceful co-existence. That is not easy for adults! Kids can close down and feel stuck when they don’t have the maturity to see their way out of a misstep. The more calmly we can acknowledge the error and hold up a torch to light their way out of the tunnel, the more likely they will find their naturally evolving empathy and offer apologies easily and authentically.

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